In the heart of a seemingly hopeless ghetto is a school that is saving livesby Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens / August 13, 2012 / Leave a comment
Every country with large, unregulated slums uses nicknames to refer to them: Jamaica has its “shanty towns,” Brazil its favelas, or morros (“hills”), South Africa its “townships.” In Kenya, they are known as “informal settlements,” and some of the most notorious of these are found in the eastern Nairobi suburb of Eastleigh.
Populated largely by Kenya’s Somali diaspora community, it is a hotbed of gang activity, prostitution, drugs and, increasingly in recent years, jihadist recruitment via the Somali based al-Shabaab militia. Yet, in the heart of this seemingly hopeless ghetto is a school that is saving lives. The Maina Wanjigi Secondary School in Eastleigh is offering its young charges an opportunity to escape from the desperation that drives many into the hands of the militia. Although lacking funds, the school fights hard to create an environment of discipline, aspiration and unity among the suburb’s diverse youth.
The approach to the school is wrought through barely traversable roads that look more like sinkholes flooded by stinking, muddy water and open sewers. I have been invited to attend a fundraising and prize-giving event at the school. My host, Sheikh Hassan Omari, who sits on the school‘s board, first has a meeting with the rest of the faculty. While I wait for him, I see a boy in his late teens standing outside the school gates and offer him some money to show me around his area. His name is Hussein. A Muslim, he is one of the few indigenous Kenyans living there.
Although some sections of Eastleigh are bustling market places—with numerous stalls selling new clothes, electronics and books amid the squalor—I ask him to take me to the most deprived parts. As we walk around, he shows me how people there eke out a living by selling things they have salvaged from landfills: ancient parts of mobile phones, pots and pans, old wires and tattered shoes.
I ask him about life in the worst parts of Eastleigh. “There is nothing here, that’s why you see all these people. They drink and take drugs to escape this, but the escape is not real.” Hussein wants the true, tangible escape of education and achievement and has aspirations to be a mechanical engineer. As we walk and talk, I only just avoid trampling a family of the filthiest ducks I have ever seen, their white feathers barely visible under layers of sticky dirt as they scavenge for food in small piles of rotting trash. We speak to other young, mostly Muslim residents of the area, and the message is overwhelmingly one of sheer desperation. “My brother, we are hungry, we have nothing except Allah,” says Abu Backar, a surprisingly well-dressed twenty-something who latches on to Hussein and me early on into our walk.